Saddam trial to go ahead despite lawyers' fear of assassination

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The trial of Saddam Hussein will go ahead as planned next week with the former Iraqi leader and his seven co-accused being represented by their own lawyers, an American official close to the case said yesterday.

However, this was immediately contradicted by members of the defence legal team - two of whose members have been murdered - saying that there were still safety issues which remained unresolved.

Khalil Dulaimi, Saddam's chief lawyer, declared he would only attend the hearings if his security concerns were met. Others in the team complained that the government had only offered protection to the families of three of the lawyers.

One lawyer who was injured in a gun attack has fled the country and is seeking political asylum in Qatar. The defence team has accused death squads linked to the interior ministry of waging an assassination campaign against them - a charge vehemently denied by the government, which said the lawyers had refused repeated offers of protection.

The US official said the Iraqi Bar Association had ended its backing of a boycott of the trial, and maintained that the eight defendants would be represented by at least one lawyer each. However, court-appointed attorneys were on standby in case defence lawyers failed to turn up.

Several witnesses are due to appear on the opening day, 28 November. Some are expected to give evidence from behind a screen. The trial is expected to last several months, with a break in the run-up to the national elections on 15 December.

Meanwhile, a prominent Sunni leader and members of his family were killed by men wearing Iraqi army uniforms yesterday.

Khadim Sarhid, the 70-year-old leader of the Batta tribe, his three sons and a son-in-law were shot dead in their home in the Huriyah district of Baghdad. His eldest son was killed a month ago.